Tlingit book cover

The Tlingits, of the north west coast

book review by Fred Lane

Hancock, D. Tlingit: Their art and culture. Hancock House Publishers: Surrey. 2003. Paperback, 94 pp. US$11.95.

Nearly all those who completed Sociology 101 in the past 50 years will be familiar with the ground-breaking work of Franz Boas (Boaz) investigating the complex anthropology of the Kwakiutl and other indigenous people of the north-west USA and Canada.

For the first time, Boas conducted a thorough investigation into baffling ceremonies such as potlatch where, contrary to the worldwide “wealth is good” and “market forces” economic theories, whole tribes gave away or even destroyed their assets. The economists eventually concluded, rather weakly, that the chiefs traded wealth for enhanced social standing, or “face”.

Boas reported that as well as overtly destroying or giving away property, potlatch ceremonies were important trans-tribal and even trans-national opportunities for the recitation of family histories, recognition of genealogies, offerings to ancestors, ceremonial dances and the transfer or confirmation of titles and possessions. What has become of these bold seafaring traders today? Do they still observe potlatch? Are they still a matrilineal and highly stratified society?

Potlatch vs tax assessors

Government officials of the USA and Canada, naturally, could see little benefit from potlatch. The tax accountants, especially, could not understand how people could save for years, only to give everything away, or even destroy valuable property. Indian Agents, missionaries and other zealots actively discouraged potlatch between about 1884 and 1950. This was correlated with the wholesale decimation of North-west Coast Indian populations by measles, smallpox and other epidemics.

The big questions are not easily answered. There have been dozens of books on the culture published over the past 20 years or so. (Google: Tlinglit – books.) One of the better ones is David Hancock’s very popular paperback.

Confirmed by this reviewer’s recent visit to the area, nowadays the indigenous people are virtually indistinguishable from their white counterparts. Of about 15,000 Alaskan natives today, Hancock says, more than half are Tlingits (p. 4). However, “Most of the people have some Russian, English, Irish, Norwegian or other blood in their veins,” (p. 8).

The Indians no longer practice potlatch and their shamans are gone, as well as their slaves. Small cultural centres remain, where the old skills and some of the traditions are taught, but they are oriented towards the tourist trade, in the form of museums and other displays. The dying pillow has been thoroughly smoothed, as some might say; or perhaps not.


Kan, S. Memory eternal: Tlingit culture and Russian Orthodox Christianity through two centuries. University of Washington Press: Seattle. 1999.

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